A 246-foot tall, rocket ship-like monument to the late ruler of Turkmenistan, topped with a golden statue of himself that rotates to always face the sun, will be removed from the center of the Turkmen capital, state news media there have reported.
A decision by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to move the monument was his latest step in dismantling the personality cult of Saparmurat Niyazov, whose often bizarre decrees turned the isolated, energy-rich country into the punch line of a bad international joke.
The president had already reversed Mr. Niyazov’s order renaming the days of the week and months of the year in honor of himself and his family. He had also ended the bans on opera, ballet and the circus, which Mr. Niyazov had decreed un-Turkmen, and lifted restrictions on the Internet.
The monument, erected in 1998 and known as the Neutrality Arch, remains the most prominent icon to Mr. Niyazov, who ruled the desert nation of five million people from its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 to his death in 2006. A giant white tripod with an Eiffel Tower-type observation deck, the monument is capped with a spinning 39-foot-tall effigy of Mr. Niyazov.
President Berdymukhammedov ordered that the monument be moved to the southern edge of the capital, Ashgabat, the official Web site, turkmenistan.ru, reported late Saturday night.
In its isolation and leader worship, Mr. Niyazov’s Turkmenistan resembled a less severe but more eccentric version of Kim Jong-il’s North Korea. Turkmen could travel abroad, but with difficulty, while foreign visits to the country were sharply restricted. Mr. Niyazov’s image was plastered throughout the country -- on buildings, watches, and vodka and perfume bottles.
Although the country was widely considered a joke abroad, the reality was not humorous. Most of the population lived in abject poverty. The country’s health and education systems were eviscerated.
Mr. Berdymukhammedov has raised hopes that the country may be experiencing a political thaw.
Chief among those hoping for political and economic reform are Western energy officials and the executives of multinational hydrocarbon companies, who hope to tap what are considered some of the world’s largest natural gas reserves.
American and European officials in particular hope to pipe Turkmen gas across the Caspian Sea into southern Europe in order to break the Russian gas behemoth Gazprom’s growing hold over the continent’s energy market.
But analysts like Prof. Eric McGlinchey, a regional expert at George Mason University in Virginia, warn against reading too much into Mr. Berdymukhammedov’s moves, which have included purging the former members of Mr. Niyazov’s inner circle but also issuing coins bearing his own portrait.
’’I would hesitate to uncork the Champagne just yet,’’ Professor McGlinchey said by telephone. ’’What he is doing is typical of any new leader trying to remove the legacy of a predecessor and consolidate his hold on power.’’
By David L. Stern The New York Times